Finding purpose in helping others

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Jorie Parr

Physical therapist and chaplain Carrie Dao Allan made her way to the United States from China via Taiwan and Brazil. She was named one of the County of Riverside’s outstanding senior citizen volunteers at the 2015 Senior Inspiration Awards luncheon.
Photo courtesy of Carrie Dao Allan

A dynamic beginning

The date: Jan. 21, 1941, Chungking, China. With Japanese bombs imminent, the pregnant physician continued to treat patients until her own labor pains escalated to urgent. She named that baby girl Carrie after the French Canadian nurse who helped deliver her.

The infant proved allergic to regular milk, so her mother, who ordered medical supplies transported by the Flying Tigers, asked them to add something extra to their cargo: Carnation powdered milk.

By 1951 Communism had overwhelmed China. “They confiscated everything,” Carrie Dao Allan remembers. A prominent pedigree — in the 1930s, her grandfather built the tallest edifice in Asia, the Shanghai Park Hotel — did not help. Carrie’s family managed to escape to Taiwan and then to South America, where she spent her teenage years.

The 5 percent to 95 percent have-have not ratio in Brazil reminded her father too much of the old country, so they made their way to America. A super achiever in the fabled Asian tradition, Carrie was on her way.

 Now 74 and thriving in Palm Springs, last spring she was named one of the most outstanding senior citizen volunteers at Senior Inspiration Awards ceremonies sponsored by the County of Riverside. She’s volunteered with Mizell Senior Center for decades, serving as board president 2001 to 2003. She tells seniors to “Live the way they want.”  In 2003, she was chosen to be a rare female Rotary district governor. And she’s lead chaplain every Tuesday at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

Meanwhile, she has her day job as physical therapist for Desert Home Health Services. Other firms try to recruit her. Asking her about retirement just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Over a Tuesday lunch at Desert Regional cafeteria, Carrie was talking about her past and present. Colleagues come over for a kiss or a hug, a quick chat in English or Spanish. “Brazilian Portuguese is close to Spanish,” she says. As for English, as a child in China she played with the offspring of American and British ambassadors.

“Let’s talk about you”

With her trim physique and open, distinctive features, Carrie cuts a striking figure. Her hypnotic smile and friendly questions seem to make a person want to tell her everything.

This capability must work for her as a chaplain. You find yourself blurting out your innermost thoughts and your age, even. It’s hard to keep the interview about her.

But then she flashes back to meeting and falling in love with Bob Allan when they were both physical therapist interns. She was a UCLA graduate, and he hailed from USC, but 52 years later that’s never been a problem, except possibly on big game day.

Early on they had a snag. It seems that Carrie was all but engaged to a cardiologist from a rich, important and Chinese family. (She’d had a Caucasian suitor before that. His family was so welcoming, the idea of not marrying Chinese had actually occurred to her.)

Bob prevailed, and “my mother supported us,” she says.

Dr. Dao had a sister who, prevented from marrying her choice, didn’t marry at all.

The young couple came to Palm Springs in 1963, and guess what? They encountered an ex-pilot who’d flown over the hump from Burma to Chungking during World War II. Smuggling the contents of her baby bottle happened to be one of his favorite war stories.

The Allans operated a physical therapy business, with Carrie the managing partner, for 35 years. “It was rated number one by Medicare,” she says.

Carrie finds her parallel work as chaplain symbiotic, saying, “It’s enabled me to be a better therapist.” She’s certainly benefited from the power of prayer: “My husband almost died twice.”

Most chaplains are ordained, Carrie explains, but her experience has been as a lay preacher. Her cadre at the hospital needs help.

“We’re looking for people interested in becoming a chaplain,” she says.

They counsel patients and employees, doctors and nurses and all (about their personal life, as well). The toughest situation Carrie says is “a baby’s demise.” She leads a closing service.

Doctors, facing a challenging surgery, often ask her to pray for and with them. ”Doctors used to think they were gods. They’re better now. More gentle. And they see the patient as a whole person.”

Never say never

She hates the word “never.” She cites a peak experience. While still in her 20s, she worked with a stroke victim who had been told by his physician he’d never walk again. “Just make him comfortable” was his advice. After six months of physical therapy, the man walked — with a cane, but he walked — into that doctor’s office. “Miracles happen,” she says.

The Allans play golf together and go to church together (Our Savior’s Community Church). Carrie sings in the choir. Also, she mentions “we’ve lead a Rotary life.”  When she was elected to office in Rotary, there was an awkward pause. What to call Bob? First man? No. They settled on “First dude,” because, as Bob quipped, they couldn’t spell “chauffeur.”

Besides being blessed with a consistently supportive husband, there are two outstanding sons. Sean, a physician in New York, and Scott, CEO at Hydro Flask in Bend, Ore.

Earlier this year, after surgery, Carrie herself had to combat the “never” word. But with a lot of prayer and a second successful operation with a more positive physician, she was pronounced cancer free. To celebrate, Scott arranged for a halcyon family holiday, a nine-day catamaran cruise of the British Virgin Islands.